Raising Happiness

 

Are you Maxed Out?

September 16, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Many American moms are on the brink of breakdown. Are you?

I just finished Katrina Alcorn’s gripping memoir, Maxed Out, about her nervous breakdown. Although it is an absorbing, can’t-put-it-down kind of a book, her breakdown—harrowing as it was—struck me as ordinary.

Ordinary in that her experience seems so common. Working parents are stressed. Women in particular are really suffering: They report record-high use of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. By some reputable reports, nearly a quarter of American woman use a prescription medication for depression or anxiety. 1 (Men tend to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, and report higher rates of addiction and alcohol.2)

Here’s how Katrina tells it:

I was a 37-year-old mother of three and somehow, my kids, my marriage, and my career were all thriving.

Then, one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2009, while driving to Target to buy diapers, I broke down. Not my car. Me.

I pulled over to the side of the road, my hands shaking, barely able to breathe. I called my husband and sobbed, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Thus ended my career, and thus began a journey into crippling depression, anxiety, and insomnia; medication, meditation, and therapy. As I learned to heal my body and my mind, I searched for answers to one question: What the hell happened to me?

I first met Katrina at a woman-led tech firm (which was recently bought-up by Facebook). Ironically, I was there as a consultant working on a happiness app for the iPhone. Katrina was successfully leading a team of hipsters doing cutting edge work—and slowly but surely having a full-on nervous breakdown.

She ended up in bed for a year, crushed by burn-out so thorough and unexpected that her friends had to bring her family food and drive her kids to day care while she recovered.

As she recovered, Katrina had a realization that was shocking to her:

Working and raising kids pretty much sucks in America.

FACT: The typical American family worked 11 hours more per week in 2006 than in 1979.

FACT: Only the United States lacks paid maternity-leave laws among the 30 industrialized democracies.

FACT: Fully 90 percent of American mothers and 95 percent of American fathers report work-family conflict. 3

Most of us feel pretty lucky and very grateful to be Americans. Dysfunctional as it may sometimes be, our government remains the world’s oldest and arguably its most stable democracy. The majority of Americans experience material wealth and abundance unknown in many parts of the world. And those of us in California and many other parts of the country are blessed with natural beauty and national parks so stunning that they inspire awe and wonder in all but only the most hardened among us.

But our policies for working families are shameful.

It isn’t that working sucks—if we are lucky, like Katrina Alcorn, we love our work. Most parents want to do meaningful work outside of our homes. It’s just that our workplaces aren’t set up to allow us enough time to take care of ourselves (say, by getting enough sleep) and raise our children and work outside the home.

This Time Bind, artfully described by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1990s in her book of that title, is a problem that we won’t solve by “leaning in” to our work (as Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advises us to do in her book about the problems that plague women in the workforce today).

Despite the publicity around a recent study that supposedly shows that working less doesn’t make people happier—more on that next week—I believe that we are still grappling with Hochschild’s time bind, all these years and technological advances later.

But what are we to do if we are feeling MAXED OUT? The owner of Alcorn’s company, a mother of three herself, advised her to hire a “mother’s helper,” to assist with homework and dinnertime. Sandberg has a team of paid folks helping her with household and child-related tasks. But hiring more help isn’t a feasible, or even desirable, solution for most of us. Would working less make us happier?

Next week I’ll look more closely at some new research related to this question.


—————————-
1. Bindley, Katherine. “Women And Prescription Drugs: One In Four Takes Mental Health Meds.” Huffington Post. 2011.
2. Kessler, Ronald C., et al. “Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.” Archives of General Psychiatry 62.6 (2005): 617.
3.Joan C. Williams of the Center for Work Life Law and Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress called “The Three Faces of Work-family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle.” Published January 2010. - See more at: http://www.workingmomsbreak.com/just-the-facts/#sthash.4G1K4JM9.dpuf

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Passion + Adversity = Success?

September 9, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

Now that the kids are back in school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success--as well as happiness. Part 3 in a 3 part series. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.

When I was graduating from college, I didn’t look for work that I felt passionate about because I assumed there were no good jobs that would involve my interests. My intention was to get the most prestigious, high-paying job I could. At that time, corporations recruited on Ivy League campuses, and I interviewed for advertising and brand management jobs that seemed to fit my internship experiences and creativity.

I landed a prestigious and high-paying job in marketing management. Unfortunately, I hated the job. I didn’t feel like I was actually doing anything but clocking in, checking tasks off a list, and heading home. I started therapy for anxiety. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted in life.

When I started studying the sociology of happiness six years later, my world was set ablaze. No one else particularly thought what I was doing was a great idea; one professor told me to “at least stop calling it happiness” if I was studying “subjective well-being,” because people were going to think that I was “not very smart.” After my struggle with anxiety in corporate America, I could have cared less what others thought of me. I paid no attention to what type of research was going to get me a tenured track position; I was too thrilled by all I was learning. I think it worked out pretty well for me.

And I’m not alone. In my first post in this series on grit and elite performance, I emphasize how success requires a whole lot of practice, which can often be unpleasurable. Yet the consistent and deliberate practice of elite performers is nearly always fueled by innate interest in what they’re doing.

In other words, passion is a core component of grit.

Research convincingly shows that when we perceive a child as being innately talented or gifted, or as showing great promise for something, what we are really perceiving is interest, not talent. A four year-old who pretends to play the violin with a stick and demonstrates an unusual interest in classical music does, indeed, show promise as a violinist. She does not, however, show talent yet. Her interest in the music at such an early age may stimulate a lot of things that lead her to virtuosity, like early music instruction and parents who encourage her to practice deliberately and consistently. But early interest is not the same as early achievement. As we saw in the first post in this series, achievement takes both effort and skill, neither of which the four year old has had enough time to develop.

Here’s the bottom line: The practice and effort that leads to success and happiness over the long run is fueled by intrinsic desire, not hard-driving parents or social expectations. In fact, my passion for the science of happiness probably developed better—and my chances for success increased—because there was no one pushing me to achieve.

Falling down
So passion is one more thing—in addition to rigorous practice and strategic resting—that elite performers have in common. All that passion comes in especially handy when we consider another important ingredient to success: failure.

Elite performers turn adversity into success. Most greats don’t just pile up one achievement after the next. Failure is a key part of growth and, eventually, elite performance: J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers (and before she even wrote the book she suffered a stream of potentially devastating personal failures). Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. Abraham Lincoln, probably the most famous example of failure contributing to success, suffered a series of lost elections (along with some notable successes) before he went on to become one of our greatest presidents.

Consider that 75 percent of all people experience some form of trauma in life, and about 20 percent of all people are likely to experience a traumatic life-event within a given year. So the odds are good that our lives aren’t going to be free from pain and suffering, no matter how well-off or well-positioned we are. (That said, socioeconomic status does matter; while wealth doesn’t insure us against many disasters, it does make many types of adverse life-events fewer and farther between.)

Since adversity in life is a given, our success and happiness depend on our ability not just to cope with it but to actually grow because of it. Professionally, we have the greatest potential to grow when we challenge ourselves in our field just beyond our comfort zone. This means risking fear, embarrassment, errors, or even full-blown failure. And it means gaining new skills and abilities that contribute to our greater mastery and success in the future.

Because grit is a combination of persistence and passion, adversity plays a significant role in helping us develop both of those qualities. Interestingly, a vast body of scientific research shows that the stress we experience as a result of adversity—and how we respond to that stress—tends to predict how much we will benefit from it. The people who report the most growth following hardship are not the people who are entirely stress-resistant in the face of adversity. Instead, the people who grow the most are actually the ones who are a little “shaken up,” and even exhibit a degree of posttraumatic stress. So if we don’t feel some stress in the face of a difficult situation, odds are we won’t grow from it.

Failure—and adversity in general—is life’s great teacher. While there might not be anything good in misfortune, as Viktor Frankl wisely reminds us, it is often possible to wrench something good out of misfortune. We know that adverse life-events—a plane crash, a terrorist bombing, breast cancer—can trigger depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress syndrome. But what most of us don’t realize is that posttraumatic growth, as researchers call it, can also awaken us to new strength and wisdom. Misfortune—even tragedy—has the potential to give our lives new meaning and a new sense of purpose, and in this way, adversity also contributes to the passion part of the grit equation.

Stephen Joseph, a preeminent expert on posttraumatic growth and the author of What Doesn’t Kill Us, puts it like this: “Adversity, like the grit that creates the pearl, is often what propels people to become more true to themselves, take on new challenges, and view life from a wider perspective.”

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Read Part 2 of this series here.

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The Quiet Secret to Success

September 2, 2013 | The Main Dish | 0 comments

As the kids head back to school, I’m thinking about what really leads to success--as well as happiness. Part 2 in a 3 part series. Click here to read Part 1.

When we look at people who are at the top of their field, they all have grit: persistence and passion for their long-term goals. But this doesn’t mean that they burn the midnight oil day in and day out in pursuit of achievement.

Just as elite performers are strategic about what they practice, they are also strategic about how long they practice for. If you think success requires practicing until your fingers bleed or mind spins or muscles give out, for hour upon hour upon hour of endless, relentless, intrinsically boring practice, I have some good news for you: Research suggests that’s not the way to get there.

In our modern, fast-paced, and technology-driven culture, we sometimes forget that we are humans, not computers. Like other animals, we humans are governed by our ultradian and circadian rhythms. Most people are familiar with the concept of our circadian rhythms: In the 24-hour period between when the sun rises and sets, we sleep and wake in predictable cycles. When we travel into different time zones, our circadian rhythms get out of whack, and as a consequence, our lives also can feel similarly discombobulated.

Our brains and bodies also cycle in “ultradian rhythms” throughout the day and night. An ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle that repeats throughout the 24-hour circadian day, like our breathing or our heart rate. 

Our brain-wave patterns cycle in ultradian rhythms as well, and about every hour and a half to two hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip,” when our energy drops and sleep becomes possible. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert—instead of letting our bodies and brains rest, we become stressed and jittery, and our performance falters.

In his studies of truly great performers, K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist and author of several landmark studies on elite performance about whom I wrote last week, found that they practiced and rested a lot more than their good but not elite peers. For example, violinists destined to become professional soloists practiced an average of 3.5 hours per day, typically in three separate sessions of 60-90 minutes each. Good but not great performers, in contrast, typically practiced an average of 1.4 hours per day, with no deliberate rest breaking up their practice session.

So it isn’t just that elite performers work more than others; they rest more, as well. The top violinists mentioned above slept an hour a night more than their less-accomplished classmates. They were also far more likely to take a nap between practice sessions—nearly three hours of napping a week.

Super-high-achievers sleep significantly more than the average American. On average, Americans get only 6.5 hours of sleep per night. (Even though studies show that 95 percent of the population needs between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.) Elite performers tend to get 8.6 hours of sleep a night; elite athletes need even more sleep. One study showed that when Stanford swimmers increased their sleep time to 10 hours a night, they felt happier, more energetic—and their performance in the pool improved dramatically.

High performance requires more sleep because it involves higher rates of learning and sometimes physical growth. When we are awake, adequate sleep allows us to focus our attention on our practice; when we are sleep deprived, our overworked neurons become uncoordinated, and we start having trouble accessing previously learned information.

When we sleep, our brain consolidates what we’ve learned while we were awake, making it a part of our working memory that we can access later. Sleep allows us to remember tomorrow how to do what we’ve practiced today, and it enables us to recall the information and knowledge we’ve just learned.

The amount of sleep that we get—and how disciplined we are about following our body’s natural circadian and ultradian rhythms—affects not just our health but our productivity and performance. But what does sleep have to do with grit?

Grit is the ability to maintain perseverance and passion towards our long-term goals; we cannot persevere in the face of difficulty if we are fatigued physically, mentally, or emotionally. We can’t persist over the decade or so it takes to achieve true mastery if we become sick or exhausted or burned out along the way. And we can’t improve our skills—intellectually, physically, or artistically—if our learning, memory, and reaction times are impaired due to lack of sleep and rest.

So being gritty isn’t just about pushing yourself 24/7 toward your goals, in both good and bad weather. It’s about making progress toward your goals consistently and deliberately, in a way that works with our human biology, allowing for proper refueling and consolidation of knowledge.

This is part two in a series. Part one, “A New Theory of Elite Performance,” explains how grit trumps genetics. Part three, “Passion + Adversity = Success,” explores how passion helps us to overcome failure.

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